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South Korea
04.07.16
Urgent Interventions

Court unjustly sentences labour rights leader to five years in prison


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Geneva, Paris, Brussels, July 4, 2016- The Observatory (a joint OMCT-FIDHprogramme), the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the InternationalTrade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) strongly condemn thesentencing today of KCTU President Mr. Sang-gyun Han toan unprecedented five years in prison and a 500,000 KRW (about 400 EUR) forcharges related to his legitimate human rights activities.


Judge Dam Shim of theSeoul Central District Court deemed that as President of KCTU[1], Mr. Sang-gyunHan was ultimately responsiblefor the altercations between police and demonstrators during a rally that tookplace in November 2015, although Mr. Han had consistently called for calm andhad dissuaded demonstrators from violence[2]. Judge Shim also absolved the policeof responsibility for the altercations, despite the fact that they had pre-emptively fired watercannons and tear gas directly at peaceful marchers, injuring dozens ofdemonstrators. Mr. Han remains in the Seoul Detention Center while his lawyersfile an appeal against his sentence.

Anarrest warrant was issued against Mr. Han in June 2015 for his participation inpeaceful demonstrations that took place in April and May 2015 in solidaritywith the victims of the sinking of the Sewol Ferry in 2014. Fearing he would besubjected to arbitrary detention, Mr. Han went into hiding for almost sixmonths, briefly going out in public in November 2015 to participate in a rallyto denounce proposed labour reforms. This rally resulted in altercationsbetween the police and demonstrators, as police had deployed some 20,000 officersfrom 248 squadrons, 19 water cannons, 679 buses, and 580 capsicum spraydevices, and took pre-emptive and aggressive action against those who werepeacefully marching. After this rally, Mr. Han went back into hiding, but inDecember 2015 turned himself into the police after the latter threatened tostorm the Jogye Buddhist Temple in Seoul where Mr. Han had taken refuge.

Whilein police detention, Mr. Han has sometimes been denied visitation rights,including from the General Secretary of the International Trade UnionConfederation for Asia and the Pacific (ITUC-AP) in December2015, dueto unfounded police concerns “about the possibility of conspiracy anddestruction of evidence”. The judicial harassment of Mr. Han continued, asprosecutors threatened him with potential sedition charges. Eventually theprosecution did not file sedition charges for lack of evidence, but did seek anunjustifiably long prison sentence against Mr. Han.

It isthe first time such a harsh sentence is handed down in South Korea in relationto the participation in an “illegal rally”. This sets a very worrying precedentfor trade unionists and rights activists, who are systematically targeted forspeaking out against government labour policies and workers’ rights violations.

Inaddition to Mr. Han, 19 other KCTU members and officers were detained andindicted in relation to the November 2015 rally. As of July 2016, 13 have beenreleased on bail or suspended sentences, and the remaining six are still incustody awaiting the outcome of their trials. These include Ms. Tae-sun Bae,KCTU Director, and Mr. Sung-deok Cho, Vice President of the Korean Public Service andTransport Workers Union (KPTU), both currently on trial facing possible six-year and five-yearprison sentences respectively.

Ourorganisations are also concerned for Ms. Young-joo Lee, KCTU SecretaryGeneral, who has taken refuge at the KCTU headquarters inSeoul since December 2015,in order to avoid being arbitrarily detained by thepolice, after the authorities issued a warrant for her arrest for participatingin the demonstrations in 2015. After seven months of being enclosed in KCTU’soffices, Ms. Lee’s mental and physical health are of concern, but given thesevere judicial harassment of Mr. Han, there is good reason for concern thatMs. Lee will face similar arbitrary detention and harsh sentencing if she wereto leave the KCTU offices.

Our organisations condemn the ongoing repression,intimidation, and judicial harassment of labour leaders in South Korea, and in particular the unwarranted sentenceagainst and arbitrary detention of Mr. Han and the pending arrest of Ms. Lee.We call on the South Korean authorities to overturn Mr. Han’s sentencing andput an end to the judicial harassment he is subjected to along with otherlabour activists, which aims at deterring the peaceful human rights activitiesof labour unions and workers' rights organisations, and to allow them toexercise their rights to free association, assembly,and expression without hindrance or fear of reprisals.

The Observatory forthe Protection of Human Rights Defenders (The Observatory) was created in 1997by FIDH and OMCT. The objective of this programme is to intervene to prevent orremedy to situations of repression against human rights defenders.

The European TradeUnion Confederation (ETUC) speaks with one voice in the name of the workers atthe European level. It represents 82 National Trade Union Confederations from36 European countries, as well as 12 European industry federations.

The International Trade UnionConfederation (ITUC) unites autonomous and democratic trade unions. Itrepresents 180 million workers in 162 countries and territories and has 333national affiliates.

The Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) is an interface for labour unions with the OECD. TUAC’s affiliates consist of over 58 national trade union centres in the 30 OECD industrialised countries which together represent some 66 million workers.

[1] The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) is an organisation representing Koreanworkers and the trade union movement, committed to advancing workers’empowerment through economic, social, and political reform, and the overall democratisationof the country.

[2] The charges filed against Mr. Han are “special obstruction of publicduty”, “special obstruction of public duty to injure public officials”,“special destruction of public goods”, “general obstruction of traffic”,“violation of article 16 of Act on Assembly and Demonstration”, “failure ofdispersion order”, “hosting an assembly at banned place”, “incitement ofviolence” and “violation of article 11 of the Act on Assembly andDemonstration”.

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